During his debate with Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama was staggered by the sheer energy of his opponent. Instead of reacting, he engaged in a form of political rope-a-dope, taking blows without giving a proper response. No doubt Romney was on his game, and he came across as energized while Obama seemed listless at best and diffident at worse.
Yet there may be a method to his madness. He made no memorable gaffes that show up on every news cycle, and he allowed Romney to change prior position with abandon.
Suddenly, Daddy Warbucks became Big Bird even if he did not appreciate the original. Suddenly, objectivism Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan style became compassionate conservatism. He took so many positions that the fact checkers were kept quite busy.
The next day he rediscovered after 17 days preaching that line that the 47 percent were not the selfish moochers described at the Florida fundraiser. He loved all mankind, even those no-accounts he so pummelled behind closed doors.
In the debate, he went all in trying to recalibrate the nice Mitt image first displayed in Tampa.
But there is danger in the make-overs. The voters have a month to decide - this is not like Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" moment on Oct. 28 with the election on Nov. 2, 1980. But make no mistake, not since George H. W. Bush checked his watch has an incumbent at least at the moment been regarded as so out of touch. But Romney also got away with changing his positions, and Obama for reasons only clear to him let him do it.
The bounce was modest and the unemployment figures coming in below 8 percent boosted Obama. One bad night can ruin a challenger but rarely an incumbent.
Jimmy Carter stupidly gambled on a one-shot presentation with Reagan and got skunked. Romney stepped on his message afterward with overstatement, which has continued. Instead, he behaved like a baseball player who came out of a long slump with a three-for-four night and then expected to be the most valuable player.
Nevertheless, the criticism of Obama was justified. Think of the situation if he had bested Romney in the debate and matched it with the good news on the unemployment front. Romney would be written off, and Obama would not be subject to criticism.
The Massachusetts governor thus lived to fight another day, and with two more debates scheduled, it is clear he will not neglect to prepare.
Debates matter, and Obama's attitude simply was not acceptable. If Romney is elected, there would be two presidents on that stage. For all his awkwardness, Romney is a driven man, and when given a chance, as he proved in the primaries, he will take full advantage.
With the stakes being high, Obama should keep the smirks to himself. George W. Bush, with two poor performances, nearly let John Kerry pass him in 2004. His narrow re-election was no mandate, and Bush had trouble regaining his political footing afterward. A hurricane blew away the good will accumulated on Sept. 11, 2001, by Bush.
Elections have consequences and Obama needs to understand that he has a political obligation.
Yet events do more than debates, and the economy may ultimately decide that the contest and the timing for the debate was perfect if it had to go bad for Obama. There is plenty of time to correct, assuming that the president is more aggressive.
More than challengers, incumbents tend to be allowed Mulligans and do-overs, but if he misses his opportunity, all bets are off. Obama needs to keep his eye on the ball.